BANGLADESH/MYANMAR: An agreement to stifle witnesses and that will not end the crisis

The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have signed a bilateral arrangement concerning the repatriation of the Rohingya from camps in Bangladesh to Rakhine state in Myanmar. The agreement was signed by both governments on 23 November 2017 at Nay Pyi Taw.

The bilateral agreement is only a first step in recognising the crisis. The agreement however does not address vital issues. The agreement views the crisis as a mere ‘Rohigya issue’ instead of acknowledging what the crisis actually is.

The victims living in temporary camps in Bangladesh are the citizens of Myanmar, not mere “residents of Rakhine state”. These people fled from Myanmar when the Government of Myanmar failed to offer any form of protection when their huts were burned, men, women and children attacked, raped and burned alive. Thousands of children who are now living in the camps in Bangladesh are witnesses to blood-chilling violence committed against their families, and many of them are orphans.

The victims who have fled to Bangladesh are those who were systematically denied identity documents in Myanmar and have nothing in Myanmar to return to. They all view territories within Myanmar, its government, its military and the fundamentalist religious groups in Myanmar that led the violence with state support, as the cause of the evil they have so far faced. Expecting these people to return, or forcing them to leave Bangladesh, is further violence that Myanmar could commit to them. Bangladesh must not be party to this.

The tone in the agreement that states “Myanmar will not criminalise (i.e. prosecute or penalise) returnees for illegal exit and return unless there are specific cases of their involvement in terrorist or criminal activities” strongly indicates that those who will be ‘brought back’ into Myanmar could face state persecution.

It raises, among others, eight vital questions: (i) On what basis and independently verified proof does Myanmar justify an accusation of ‘terrorist and criminal’ activities upon the victims who have fled Myanmar? (ii) Does the civil administration of Myanmar have any mechanism, capacity, credibility, and independence to undertake such an investigation, other than following the directives of the military that holds absolute control over Myanmar? (iii) What independent criminal justice delivery mechanisms do Myanmar have to adjudicate accusations of crimes against the returning victims? (iv) Will the accused be allowed to defend the charges against them by being provided with quality and independent legal defence? (v) From where will Myanmar source independent judges, lawyers and prosecutors for such an adjudication process, since nothing exist today in Myanmar, including an institutional memory of independence, and professionalism within its criminal justice framework? (vi) What independent investigation has Myanmar undertaken regarding the violence committed against the victims, forcing at least half a million people into Bangladesh since October 2016? (vii) Who has been prosecuted in Myanmar for committing the violence against the victims and by what independent process? (viii) How will Myanmar prevent those returning from Bangladesh being injured from landmines that the Myanmar military has placed in large numbers where the victims once lived?

If the response to these questions are not positive, it simply means, that the agreement signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar is a means for Myanmar to ‘get back’ the witnesses to the crime into their jurisdiction so that they could be silenced. And, for Bangladesh the agreement is means with which they could sweep the victims out of their jurisdiction and get away from the burden of being responsible for more than half a million people who have taken shelter within its boundaries.

The agreement between the two states fails to spell out any real commitment to address the root causes of the problems that triggered the crisis. Most of the villages where the victims lived have been totally destroyed. Yet, the agreement expecting the victims to provide ‘evidence of past residence in Myanmar’ is a task almost no one living in the camps in Bangladesh could comply. This is another way for Myanmar to give up responsibility for their citizens chased away from within its borders.

The agreement does not commit Myanmar, financially or otherwise, to rehabilitate the survivors of violence. The agreement on the other hand mentions that the authorities in Myanmar would house the returnees to the government-run facilities, and their movements restricted within Rakhine state. The provisions for any oversight by international bodies or the civil society over the repatriation process or the settlement of victims in Myanmar or their identification is also not mentioned in the agreement.

In the backdrop of these concerns, it is highly important for the global civil society to intervene on all aspects of the bilateral agreement, to ensure that this agreement will not literally hurt further the victims who are now at least safe with their lives in Bangladesh. Any coercive means with which the victims are pushed back into Myanmar, against their will, must be prevented. It is equally the responsibility of all the civil society agencies operating in Myanmar, including those representing the UN and its manifold mandates, to speak up on behalf of the victims who are now stranded in Bangladesh.